Christine Lee was accused of attempting to influence UK politicians while facilitating donations from figures in Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland, according to a security briefing circulated to MPs and peers on Thursday.
It emerged that former Labour minister Barry Gardiner received more than £500,000 from Ms Lee’s firm to cover staffing costs, while much smaller sums were given to Labour HQ and Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey.
The alleged agent, a London-based solicitor, was given an award by Theresa May when she was prime minister in 2019, and former prime minister David Cameron was photographed speaking in at a 2016 event for a Chinese “engagement” group that Ms Lee founded.
The allegation against Ms Lee is one of interference in order to gain covert influence in the UK and not intelligence gathering, Whitehall sources told The Independent. They refused to comment on whether investigations into her activities have failed to find evidence of espionage.
Home secretary Priti Patel said stronger laws were needed since Ms Lee’s activity was “under the criminal threshold” – warning that it is likely there will be more security alerts like the one issued on Thursday.
In a letter containing the MI5 alert sent to MPs and peers, Speaker Lindsay Hoyle warned that Ms Lee had been working on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party and had sought to lobby “serving and aspiring” politicians.
Mr Gardiner said he only found out Ms Lee was acting as an agent when he approached by security officials on Thursday, but had spoken to security services about her for several years “because I knew she was a solicitor who acted for a number of a Chinese businesses in the UK”.
The Labour MP also revealed that Ms Lee’s son had been acting as his diary manager – but he asked for and accepted the staff member’s resignation on Thursday. Mr Gardiner said MI5 had advised him there was no intelligence “that shows he was aware of, or complicit in, his mother’s illegal activity”.
Mr Gardener said he was “deeply distressed” to have been targeted by Ms Lee, and insisted that he had not personally benefited for the money used to cover staffing costs. “I don’t feel a fool – but I do feel very angry, and I feel very angry someone tried to use me in that way,” he told Sky News.
Asked on Sky News whether he had conversations about government policy with regards to China, Mr Gardiner said: “No, not in great detail.” The MP denied he acted as a “cheerleader” for the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station project, funded by a Chinese state-backed firm.
Ms Lee’s firm Christine Lee & Co helped fund staffing costs over a five-year period until June 2020, but Mr Gardiner insisted that he had not “personally benefited from those donations in any way”.
The MI5 security warning stated she had engaged with “individuals across the UK political spectrum” – including through the now disbanded All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) Chinese in Britain – and may “aspire to establish further APPGs to further the CCP’s agenda.”
The Lib Dem leader received a £5,000 donation from Ms Lee in 2013, while he was energy secretary in the coalition government, but said the money was accepted by his local association and reportedly properly.
A spokesperson for the party said Sir Ed was “shocked by these revelations”, adding: “The email from the Speaker of the House of Commons today was the first time he has been given cause to be concerned about a donation to his local party association.”
The Labour Party told The Independent that it had received £5,000 centrally from Ms Lee’s firm in 2016, while several small donations were made to local Labour branches.
In 2008, Ms Lee’s firm funded flights for a four-day trip to Beijing for then Labour MP Andrew Dismore, then chairman of the Chinese in Britain APPG. And in 2014 her firm helped sponsor a Chinese Lib Dems dinner to support the party’s then candidate Sarah Yong.
In 2019, Lady May gave Ms Lee a Downing Street “Points of Light” award for her work with British Chinese Project, a group she founded in 2006 to promote engagement between the Chinese community and wider UK society.
Mr Cameron was also photographed addressing a British Chinese Project event in a photo the organisation posted online in 2016, and Ms Lee was also captured chatting to former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and ex-deputy leader Tom Watson at a separate event in 2016.
Senior Conservative MP Sir Iain Duncan Smith raised the issue in the Commons on Thursday and called for an overhaul of the accreditation process “because it’s clearly too lenient”.
The former Tory party leader told MPs: “This is a matter of grave concern”, adding: “Why in heavens name is such an agent allowed in this country?”
There are, at present, no laws in place to bring charges on seeking to exert influence such as the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in the US. In March this year the government said in the integrated review of defence and security that it would seek to introduce a foreign agent registration scheme.
Ms Patel said the government was looking at “what further measures, actions and steps that we can undertake, and that’s really important.”
Yvette Cooper MP, shadow home secretary, said Labour “condemned in the strongest terms the attempts by China to interfere in Britain’s democratic processes – and said it was seeking more information from MI5 and the Home Office on the extent of “the deception and interference”.
The Metropolitan Police declined to comment on whether officers are investigating after MI5 issued a security alert to parliament.
The Independent has contacted Ms Lee’s law firm and the British Chinese Project for comment.
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